March 24, 2005
There's a scene in Kevin Rodney Sullivan's roundly appealing integration comedy “Guess Who” that shrewdly illustrates the hair-trigger racial sensitivities that linger in America today.
White financial analyst Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher) has just sat down to dinner with the family of his black fiancee, Theresa Jones (Zoe Saldana). Spurred on by his rueful future father-in-law, Percy (Bernie Mac from “Bad Santa”) — who regards Simon's skin color with a mixture of skepticism and embarrassment — Simon regales the table with a series of so-called “black” jokes. Because if one doesn't air out these archaic, racist attitudes, one “only empowers them,” the well-meaning boyfriend reasons.
Surprisingly, the family enjoys Simon's first few punch lines — variously goofing on Tiger Woods, Afros and black America's affinity for barbecue ribs — until he inevitably blunders onto a forbidden pressure point, a racial no-fly zone, that sours the evening completely.
It's a funny scene because of Simon's naiveté and discomfort — discomfort, of course, being the sole comedic feed bag of unwelcome-boyfriend movies — and meaningful because it sponsors both sides of the racial debate: The widespread belief among whites that black America has turned racial progress into a game of entrapment, and the belief among blacks that white America, for all its enforced politeness, still conceals the worst sort of biases.
Watching the characters in “Guess Who” overcome these barriers and enter into familyhood turns out to be one of the more pleasant movie experiences of the year (though, considering the competition, that's a less-than-fantastic feat). Billed as the racially-inverted offspring of the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn-Sidney Poitier classic “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” (1967) — the screenwriter on that film, William Rose, gets a story credit here — the movie is actually closer to “Meet the Parents” in terms of overall genetic structure. Within minutes of meeting Theresa's white-whacked parents — initially, Percy thinks the ebony-toned cab driver (Mike Epps from “Next Friday”) is his daughter's new suitor — Simon spins a silly, indefensible, Stilleresque lie to impress Percy, a self-proclaimed man's man so intensely distrustful that he runs a credit check on Simon before he arrives.
Like “Meet the Parents,” “Guess Who” is ultimately a story of reluctant male bonding. A bubble of tension gradually builds between Simon and Percy, nourished by cramped sleeping arrangements (one of the movie's less funny contrivances), character issues (Simon storms out of his job at the outset; we don't know why) and a relentless string of radio songs that tingle Percy's fear of jungle fever (the Rolling Stones’ “She Was Hot,” Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's “Ebony and Ivory,” etc.).
Wisely, Sullivan (“Barbershop 2: Back in Business”) puts enough space between the movie's most derivative moments that we never become fully conscious of the script's hoariness, and Mac — with his edgy glare and sloppy elocution — makes for a dependably hilarious foil.
Comic dependability has never been Kutcher's strong suit, but here, the lopey star of “Dude, Where's My Car?” and renowned Hollywood prankster (MTV's “Punk'd”) comes closest to synthesizing the smooth affability of his work on “That ’70s Show.” Kutcher is particularly appealing when paired on-screen with Saldana, an elegant Dominican-American beauty (“Drumline,” “Center Stage”) with whom he shares a natural, adventurous rapport. Not to tread on hallowed Hollywood ground, but we could be witnessing the vague, flickering beginnings of a Tomorrow-world Hepburn and Tracy.
Starring: Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana
Rating: PG-13 (sex-related humor)
Running time: 97 min.
Playing: Opens Friday in theaters Valleywide